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Are unit tests a waste of time?

testingbest practices
02 Jun 2020
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TL;DR In a perfect world, we would have automated tests for everything, but in reality, there's always a compromise between code quality and costs.

I've been lucky enough to start a fair amount of greenfield projects in the past years. Looking back, I feel like writing tests had always saved time in the long run but were rather cumbersome when working on UI and smaller projects.

It goes without saying that for some apps (i.e. life-critical, mission-critical) an unit test coverage of 80%+ should be required. But, despite what most of the literature says, in some cases, unit tests are actually slowing us down. In which case, how do we decide if it's worth the trouble and keep a balance between quality and costs?

Here are a couple of things to consider.

  • Debugging process Remember when you had that one awkward bug, and it took days only to reliably reproduce it? Unit tests allow you to control the state of your components in great detail, making it easier to find and fix such issues.
  • Reusability and life span If you wrapped up some code in a reusable library, chances are you'll improve it frequently in the beginning. Unit tests can help you ensure no breaking changes sneak through each iteration.
  • Complexity When you can't reason about a system in the wild, it helps to frame it in isolation. Unit tests do just that.
  • Third-party dependencies Software requires the perfect alignment of many moving parts, some of them not under your control. When third parties act unexpectedly, it becomes almost impossible to debug your system. Mocking dependencies in your unit tests solves this.
  • Costs If you think you don't have enough time to write unit tests it automatically means you're ready to trade quality for it. This might work in some scenarios (e. g. proof of concepts), but you must be aware of the implications.
  • Team size You'll find that as you make your code testable, you also increase its intrinsic quality. Also, unit tests are the closest thing to written specs, and while you can manage without any formal requirements while working on a part-time project by yourself, larger, heterogeneous teams would have a hard time doing so.

Unit testing is time-consuming, especially if you have a poorly designed codebase. You can decide to skip it, and it might be the right thing to do, depending on the context, but you'll have to trade code quality in return.